‘Jessica Alba, the film actress, has the ultimate sexy strut, according to a team of Cambridge mathematicians.’ This important study was the work of a team—apparently—headed by Professor Richard Weber of Cambridge University. I was particularly delighted to see it finally appear in print since, in the name of research, I had discussed prostituting my own reputation for it with Clarion, the PR company responsible, six months earlier, and there’s nothing like watching flowers bloom.
Here is their opening email:
We are conducting a survey into the celebrity top ten sexiest walks for my client Veet (hair removal cream) and we would like to back up our survey with an equation from an expert to work out which celebrity has the sexiest walk, with theory behind it. We would like help from a doctor of psychology or someone similar who can come up with equations to back up our findings, as we feel that having an expert comment and an equation will give the story more weight.
It got them, as we have seen, onto the news pages of the Daily Telegraph.
I replied immediately. ‘Are there any factors you would particularly like to have in the equation?’ I asked. ‘Something sexual, perhaps?’ ‘Hi Dr Ben,’ replied Kiren. ‘We would really like the factors of the equation to include the thigh to calf ratio, the shape of the leg, the look of the skin and the wiggle (swing) of the hips…There is a fee of £500 which we would pay for your services.’
There was survey data too. ‘We haven’t conducted the survey yet,’ Kiren told me, ‘but we know what results we want to achieve.’ That’s the spirit! ‘We want Beyonce to come out on top followed by other celebrities with curvy legs such as J-Lo and Kylie and celebrities like Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse to be at the bottom e.g.—skinny and pale unshapely legs are not as sexy.’ The survey, it turned out, was an internal email sent around the company. I rejected their kind offer, and waited. Professor Richard Weber did not. He regrets it. When the story came out, I emailed him, and it turned out that things were even more absurd than was necessary. Even after rigging their survey, they had to re-rig it:
The Clarion press release was not approved by me and is factually incorrect and misleading in suggesting there has been any serious attempt to do serious mathematics here. No ‘team of Cambridge mathematicians’ has been involved. Clarion asked me to help by analysing survey data from eight hundred men in which they were asked to rank ten celebrities for ‘sexiness of walk’. And Jessica Alba did not come top. She came seventh.
Ben Goldacre, Bad Science